Despite its long history of wildfires, Canada still doesn’t know how to live with them

Despite its long history of wildfires, Canada still doesn't know how to live with them

The Porcupine Fire, which leveled numerous Ontario towns and killed 73 people, was followed five years later by a deadlier fire that killed 223 people. Photo credit: National Archives of Canada-Henry Peters

In the fall of 1922, the City of Toronto sent 85 surplus streetcars to Haileybury and other northern Ontario cities to provide shelter for thousands of desperate people who had lost their homes to wildfires.

Known as the Great Fire, it burned nearly 1,700 square kilometers of the area – including the town of Haileybury. It killed 43 people and caused millions of dollars in property damage in 18 communities. One newspaper called it the “worst disaster that has ever struck northern Ontario.”

It was not.

The wildfires back then were as fierce, deadly, and eerily similar as they are today. And we still have to learn to live with them.

fires of the past

The Great Miramichi Fire, which destroyed forests and devastated communities in northern New Brunswick in 1825, was the largest and one of the deadliest wildfires in North American history.

The Saguenay and Ottawa Valley fires of 1870 could have been just as deadly, forcing the evacuation of several thousand people. The capital would have burned down that summer if an astute engineer had not ordered the gates of the St. Louis Dam on the Rideau Canal to be breached so that it would flood the city’s streets.

The following year, 17 Wisconsin villages were leveled, killing between 1,200 and 1,500 people.

In 1881, Michigan thumb fires burned 1,480 barns, 1,521 homes, and 51 schools while killing 283 and injuring many others. Smoke from these fires colored the skies over Toronto.

In 1908, the town of Fernie, British Columbia was razed by wildfire. In 1911, the Porcupine Fire killed 73 people as it leveled the Ontario towns of South Porcupine and Pottsville before partially destroying Golden City and Porquis Junction.

Five years later, there was almost no warning as an even deadlier complex of fires swept through the same region, killing 223 people.

Every summer and fall, it seemed, ended badly somewhere.


The similarities between the fires of yesteryear and now are uncanny, as described in my book Dark Days At Noon: The Future of Fire. The kindling of fires between 1870 and 1922 was fueled by higher temperatures, drier forests, and the kind of increased lightning activity we see today.

Much of that warming can be attributed to the end of the Little Ice Age (1300-1850), which cooled parts of the world dramatically, and the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Today, the unprecedented warming is mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels.

Forest robbery and negligence have also fueled numerous fires in the past and present.

Before and after the turn of the 19th century, people migrated to the boreal and temperate forests for cheap land and mining and forestry jobs. Today, people in places like the Okanagan are building luxurious country homes to escape the cost of living in big cities.

Train sparks and careless disposal of locomotive ash have been responsible for a significant number of Ontario fires in the past. After the 2021 Lytton, BC fire, the head of Canada’s Transportation Safety Board acknowledged more work is needed to prevent train-caused wildfires.

loopholes in public policy

Wildfire tornadoes have been observed across Canada, Australia and the United States

The other thing that hasn’t changed much is public policy. The Porcupine Fire of 1911 was Canada’s version of the Big Burn, a fire complex that swept through the United States’ northern Rocky Mountains in 1910 and led to sweeping policy changes.

After the Big Burn, the US passed the Weeks Act, which authorized the government to buy up to 30 million acres of land to protect watersheds from development and wildfires. This obliged the US Forest Service to work with state fire departments, who were happy to cooperate as they could not otherwise afford funds.

In contrast, Canadian politicians have not done what is necessary to prevent future fires. The government, which owned many of the railroad companies, blamed many of the fires on the indigenous people. Five years after the Porcupine fire, when the Matheson fire claimed 223 lives, there were still no better laws and fire safety strategies. Nor were they there in 1922 when the Great Fire devastated Haileybury.

Canada had the chance to replicate what the US Forest Service did, but failed as funding for fire research and management was severely depleted in the 1930s by budget cuts and devolution of responsibilities to the provinces.

Even today, provinces like Alberta have slashed wildfire budgets to save money, only to pay the price when wildfires like the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire forced the evacuation of 88,000 people.

Dealing with future fires

The fact that fires are still encroaching on cities like Lytton and Fort McMurray without proper warning suggests we have yet to learn to live with the fires that are fueled by burning fossil fuels, draining wetlands and suppressing of natural fires that would otherwise have produced more resilient forests.

Stopping the native burning that helped forest regeneration didn’t help.

We are now in a unique situation where hot fires create their own weather—fire-driven thunderstorms and pyrogenic tornadoes—that can create other fires. We saw this at Fort McMurray in 2016, in BC in subsequent years, and in 2019 and 2020 when Australia’s Black Summer fire season resulted in a massive outbreak of fire and smoke storms.

In a word, this is scary.

The title of my book, Dark Days at Noon, dates back to 1780, when smoke from distant fires blocked so much sunlight that people across New England thought the end of the world was near. The end of the world is not near, but there will be many dark days at noon unless we learn to live with fire.

New study offers insight into the past – and future – of wildfires on the West Side

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